1 Samuel 2:1-10Mark 10:35-45
Baptized by the baptism with which I am baptized. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
Elizabeth and I were invited to attend George’s baptism. He was two years old, and his parents, Greek Orthodox Christians, were friends of ours. It was my first real exposure to the liturgical richness of the Orthodox tradition. You will note later in our service that some of these ancient practices remain even in our modest Presbyterian ways as echoes of older, deeper mysteries.
A few family members gathered around George as the priest opened up the crumbling liturgical book and began to pray. We took George to the back of the church, the narthex, which is the place reserved for those who have yet to be baptized. As Fr. Thomas asked his parents to renounce Satan and the ways of evil, he blew on the child’s forehead, reminding us of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, throughout the sacrament. Then young George was stripped to his bare essentials, shall we say, and Fr. Thomas anointed him with oil: his eyes to see God's work, his nose to smell the scent of Christ, his mouth to speak God's wisdom, his ears to hear the word of Christ, his chest for the health of his body, his hands to do God's work, his feet to tread the head of the serpent, his back to carry his cross. A deacon then filled a large copper basin with cold water – Fr. Thomas was very explicit about the temperature – and olive oil was poured into the water in the shape of the cross. Then came the moment for which the Orthodox are most well-known: Fr. Thomas took George like a rodeo calf and dunked him into the water three times. It was a bit traumatic for the boy, to say the least! Finally, George was toweled off and re-dressed, the family circling the baptismal font three times, singing the ancient resurrection hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tombs.”
The theology is rich, the liturgy beautiful and even a bit distressing at times, but what does it mean? What is being said by what is done? And what is it that we do here today in this thing called baptism as we name young Preston (no dunking, I promise), a child of the covenant?
It seems that there may be something to learn from that shocking Orthodox submersion of the child into the basin. In Scripture, we read from Paul that in our baptism we are buried with Christ so that we might share in his resurrection, and so there is this entry beneath so that we might rise above. At the same time, it is a moment that frightens and stuns, reminding us that the entry into the community of faith, into the body of Christ, into the Church is a jolting one.
As Christians, we interact with the world in a way that could perhaps be described as a dance. We do not embrace the world, nor do we reject it. Instead, we engage the world critically, through the lens of faith and Scripture. We know that there are times where we will be in step and others where we will be at cross-purposes. And we know that there are times when our choices and priorities make be admirable in the eyes of neighbors, friends, even family; and that there are times when those decisions and obligations seem downright foolish to those whom we dearly love. In short, as Christians, we are called to a different way of being in the world, a calling that is marked most clearly by our baptism, our crossing through these cleansing waters into the community of promise.
We can see this different way of being in our gospel lesson this morning. The disciples are coming to the end of three years of ministry with Jesus, having witnessed and participated in his teaching and his healing among the people of the Galilee and beyond. Now, they are making that final journey down to Jerusalem. They fully expect that, once they arrive in Jerusalem, Jesus will be crowned king, and they will surround him as his royal court, his confidantes. “Finally, these three years of privation, of leaving behind nets and relying on the kindness of strangers, is going to pay off!”
Smelling this faint scent of power, the disciples’ jealousy begins to appear. John and James decide that, since this triumph is immanent, they want to be sure to be the new king’s closest advisers. So they approach him with this request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in glory.” Not the glory of a heavenly reign, but the glory of the re-established kingdom with Christ on its throne. It is then that Christ reveals to them a bit more of what is to come. They are to drink the cup that he drinks: that is, to suffer at the hands of those who reject him; and they are to be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized: that is, to be called into this different way of being in the world. Glory isn’t really the question, Christ reminds them. Instead, it is service. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” In the mold of Christ, those who seek to follow him must not desire to be served, be rather to serve.
These words echo down to us today. The message in the gospel of Mark is not merely for James or John, or for the other ten disciples who are furious at their scheming ways. We, too, are the ones to whom Christ is speaking. We share in that cup and in that baptism, that approach to life and to death and to everything in between which calls us to this jolting reality of the life of faith. We are called, fundamentally, to a different way of being in this world.
That idea hit home for me a few months ago. I was taking a class in management training at Emory. There were ten of us in the class, mid-level managers from the profit and non-profit world. We began with a little active learning. Now, I’ve played these educational games before: trust falls and telephone, games that teach something about communication or relationships or team-building. But this game was the most elaborate I’ve seen.
We were stranded on a desert island. The plane in which we had arrived was destroyed. In one hour, a long-dormant volcano was set to erupt. But there was some good news: we had discovered an old World War II plane in a rusted hangar – at least, there were parts of an old World War II plane. We had one hour to put the pieces together and to get off the island in our piece. One of us volunteered to be the “manager” to keep us on track. We got a bag full of lego-like pieces that were designed specifically for this game. The teacher put on a CD of jungle noises, and we began.
Periodically, the teacher would drop little pre-printed cards under our elbows either to help us or distract us. We would get drawings that showed us how to put parts of the plane together, or one of us would be charged to try and distract the group with worries about the volcano or the sound of a plane flying overhead. The manager’s job was to keep us focused and to help keep the distractions to a minimum as we tried to finish this daunting task in the allotted time.
About ten minutes in, one of the group informed us based on her card that the natives who inhabited this island were furious. These were their plane parts, and if we didn’t return them, they would kill us. We discussed our options quickly, and decided that one possibility would be to offer the parts of our now useless plane for their plane parts. It was bigger, after all, “and besides,” said one of our group, “The island’s going to be destroyed in less than an hour anyway. We can give them whatever they want.”
The comment that distressed me, that somehow these natives were dispensable for our sake and safety. I thought about speaking up, but then I thought, “It’s just a game. The whole point is to build the airplane and get off the island, not save the whole world. Besides, I’m having too much fun playing with legos. I’d rather not be troubled with these distractions of moral arguments.” Even so, that moral conscience and a chance to interject a bit of ethics into a management training session kept nagging at me. Once we were finished, and as we began determining who would get on the plane, since there was only room for two at a time, I told them that I would stay behind. “I’m not leaving the natives,” I told the group. “It’s not right.”
“You have to get on the plane! We all have to get off the island!”
“I’m not leaving.” We went back and forth for a good five minutes, until the teacher called time. We had succeeded, and it was time to debrief what we had learned about management practices, dealing with distractions, team-building, and problem-solving. The question of the natives quickly faded into the mists of the desert island we left behind.
Now, I’m aware that, in the end, it was all only a game. No one was harmed, no natives really lost their lives. Even my stand at the end was only posturing, since I wasn’t really putting my life on the line. But what happens when it does matter? What happens when people’s lives are really at stake, when the desires of the world collide with the passion of the Church, when selfishness must give way to selflessness, when the wish to be served must be overridden by the calling to serve? In short, would I be able to do the right thing? Or would any of us be able to live into that baptism into which we are baptized, to drink from that cup from which Christ drank?
Friends, today we baptize a child. James and Amy, we baptize your child, but not only your child. When we baptize Preston today, we claim him as our own, a child of God, like us, and a precious brother in Christ. And as we present him today at this font, we sing those words from the ancient song of Hannah, presenting young Samuel to the service of God, “Our hearts exult in the Lord; our strength is exalted in our God, the one who breaks the bows of the mighty and girds the feeble with strength, the one who feeds the hungry and lifts up the poor.”
Today, through the modest richness of our baptismal liturgy, we proclaim that Preston is a child of the covenant, and that he is brought into this jolting life-altering reality of life in Christ. There will come a time in his life when he will need to challenge the priorities of peers and community. But when he does, he will not be alone. Today we also remember that we, too, are baptized. Our role is to live out our baptisms and offer our witnesses of service in such a way that Preston will know what he is called to do. In that moment when it is time to stay behind with the natives, Preston will not flinch, because he has been nurtured into this new way of being. May God be praised.